The anonymity provided by the Internet is frequently an illusion created by users. After all, no one in a virtual world can ever learn your true identity. Third parties can obtain information about your computer, as well as your location and the websites you visit, simply by connecting to the Internet.
Surfing the web anonymously allows you to avoid being tracked by technologies that monitor your online activities and may result in the disclosure of personal information to third parties. When you surf the web anonymously, no one knows your identity, the location from which you connect, or the websites you visit.
People have the misconception that anonymous Web browsing is synonymous with deviant behavior such as extramarital affairs, malicious hacking, illegal downloading, and other immoral activities. By no means is this always the case. In fact, there are numerous valid reasons why a person might want to maintain their anonymity online:
- Your place of employment or education most likely has strict web-surfing policies in place and filters your internet access.
- You believe strongly in the right to free expression and do not want the government or anyone else to censor what you say or do.
- You believe that the Internet provides the best environment for you to freely express your opinions without fear of being harassed or tracked down by people who disagree with you.
- You believe that the Bill of Rights of the United States and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights give you the authority to conduct your private affairs without interference from any third party.
- You are currently living outside of your home country but want to watch streaming video content that is normally only available to residents of that country.
- You are concerned about search engines collecting information about the queries you enter into their systems.
- You do not want internet advertisers to know where you live or what products you buy.
- You want to participate in online discussion groups without revealing your identity, possibly to talk to others about a personal medical condition or something else.
As you will see in the following paragraphs, browsing the Internet incognito is not as simple as clearing the history of your web browser. Learn more about computer networks and IP addresses, as well as how they can be used to reveal your identity.
IP Addresses and Cookies: Solving the Mystery of Your Online Identity
Your computer, like every other device connected to the Internet, is given a unique Internet Protocol (IP) address. You may have a fixed IP address or one that changes every time you connect to the internet. When you use the Internet, you are always assigned a unique identifier that only you know.
Without a specific number known as an IP address, the Internet cannot function. It is the address of your specific computer within the context of a vast computer network, similar to the location of a single residence on a busy street. If a Web server knows the network address of your computer, it can send the contents of a Web page to your browser. This is the only way it can be done.
IP addresses do not contain any personally identifiable information about the person who is using them. However, if you are a subscriber to an Internet Service Provider (ISP), as the majority of us are, your ISP will be able to easily link your IP address with your name, home address, phone number, e-mail address, and even credit card information. No one will be able to link your IP address to any of this information if you are not a subscriber to an ISP.
Don’t get too worked up just yet: The majority of Internet service providers have fairly strict privacy policies. They will not reveal any of your personal information to anyone who approaches them and requests it. However, in order to comply with laws such as the Patriot Act in the United States and subpoenas issued by police and other federal agencies, an Internet service provider (ISP) may be forced to provide personal information associated with an IP address.
Cookies are a method that third parties can use to monitor the websites that a user visits. Cookies are small text files that your web browser saves whenever you visit a website. Cookies enable websites to collect information about their visitors. The file may contain your login information, user preferences, items in your online shopping cart, and possibly other identifiers. As a result of these cookies, your web browsing experience will feel more tailored to your interests and preferences. When you visit your favorite websites, using one of these extensions will help you spend less time there. Furthermore, they are designed to help advertisers better tailor their messages to your specific preferences.
First-party cookies are those that are stored on your browser by previously visited websites. Third-party cookies are those that are placed on your computer by third parties, such as advertisers or other parties who have information-sharing agreements with the website you have visited. Many people believe that using cookies provided by third parties constitutes a particularly egregious breach of privacy because you have no control over who collects information about you.
In the section that follows, we’ll look at how identity thieves can use a data trail left behind online to piece together your true identity.
Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together Your Internet Reputation
Search engines routinely save search queries along with the corresponding IP address. Google and MSN both store search queries for nine and eighteen months, respectively [source: Privacy Rights Clearinghouse]. Analyzing hundreds or thousands of search queries made from the same IP address can reveal someone’s identity. This is especially true if the person has used a map to find their home address or entered their Social Security number.
Web e-mail accounts pose yet another threat to online users’ privacy. If you use the same website for e-mail and Internet search queries, you may be leaving a very clear trail for hackers and other cybercriminals to follow when you go online.
If you use Google as your email provider, you will need to sign in to Gmail.com every time you access your inbox. If you perform any Google Web searches while logged in to your e-mail account, those searches will be associated with the same IP address as your e-mail account. From that point forward, a hacker or another third party could easily link your searches to your email address. They could then use the data gleaned from your searches to send you spam or other types of e-mail scams that are more relevant to you.
Viewing the history stored in your web browser is the simplest and most direct way for a third party to track your Internet activity. As you navigate through it, your web browser keeps a chronological list of all the websites you visit in order. The majority of web browsers save at least seven days’ worth of browsing history by default. If someone else wanted to know where you go on the Internet, all they had to do was open your browser and look through your history.
If you use a computer at work to browse the Internet, your manager does not need to turn on your computer to view the history of the websites you have visited. Your employer has the legal right to monitor the websites you visit while using an office computer connected to the network.
In the following section, we’ll go over anonymous proxy servers, which are one of the most effective ways to hide your identity while you’re online.
You are exactly what you seek
In 2006, AOL made the search histories of 20 million of its users available for research purposes. For identification purposes, each search history was assigned a number rather than a name. Despite this, journalists were able to successfully identify several of these “numbers” by simply analyzing the search queries they used. [according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse] More than a hundred people had looked up their own Social Security numbers.
Anonymized Proxies Servers
Your computer sends a request to a web server when you type a URL into your web browser and then press the Enter key. The web server then returns the requested web page to your web browser. The webserver requires knowledge of your IP address in order to complete this task. Doesn’t that put an end to anonymous web browsing?
It’s not always the case: Using a proxy server is one way to avoid revealing your Internet Protocol (IP) address to every Web server with which you communicate. A proxy server is a computer that acts as a middleman between you and the rest of the Internet. Every page request you make will be routed through the proxy server first.
An anonymous proxy server is a type of proxy server that contains software that replaces your IP address in any page request with its own instead of displaying yours. After the Web server sends the page back to the proxy server, the proxy server will send it to you without any additional software scripts that could potentially compromise your identity.
The most common and widely used type of anonymous proxy server is web-based proxies. To use an anonymous proxy service, simply go to the proxy service’s website and enter the URL you want to use in a box specifically designated for that purpose. The request will then be routed through the proxy service to the Web server.
Anonymity-providing proxy servers have a few potential drawbacks
Page loading times are frequently slowed as a result of the proxy server’s requirement that every page, both incoming and outgoing, be processed by it. Furthermore, because the proxy server attempts to remove or work around any potentially malicious components on the returned page, many of the pages will load with errors.
Make sure you’re using a reputable web proxy with transparent privacy policies. Malicious hackers have been known to create bogus anonymous Web proxies in order to steal information from customers who are unaware they are being targeted. When you use a proxy server, the data you send and receive is typically sent in an unencrypted format, giving cyber criminals access to usernames, passwords, and other sensitive information.
You should also avoid using what are known as “open proxies.”
These are proxy servers that have been said to have been abandoned and accidentally left “open” for a variety of reasons. A large number of these proxies are actually snares set up by dishonest hackers to steal personally identifiable information. Some open proxies can be found on the computers of unsuspecting users infected with a computer virus. These users are completely unaware that their computers have been hacked.
Now that you know how to hide your IP address while online, it’s time to check the settings on your web browser.
Even though anonymous proxy servers are an excellent way to mask your IP address while online, there is still a lot of information about your Web surfing habits stored on your computer. Fortunately, your web browser gives you direct and simple control over the privacy settings it employs.
One of the quickest and easiest ways to reduce your digital footprint is to delete your browser history manually. Every web browser, including Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Google Chrome, allows you to clear your browsing history.
Please follow these steps to clear your browser’s history
- In Safari, go to the History menu, scroll down to the bottom, and then click the “Clear History” button.
- Launch Firefox and select the Preferences option from the Firefox menu. From the menu, select the Privacy tab. Scroll down to the Private Data section, and then click the “Clear Now” button.
- In Google Chrome, go to the Tools menu, select “History,” select a recently visited website, and then click the “Delete history for this day” button.
- Internet Explorer 7 and 8, in particular, make this process more difficult. You can get help by visiting support.microsoft.com and following the instructions.
- However, even if you delete your browsing history from your computer, any network administrator — whether in your office or for your Internet service provider (ISP) — can still access it on the network.
Furthermore, you have control over how your browser manages cookies. The vast majority of browsers are pre-configured to accept cookies from all websites visited. You can block all cookies, which may prevent you from using certain online banking and shopping websites, or you can block only cookies set by third-party websites.
Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Google Chrome all have specialized settings that allow users to browse the Internet without leaving a trace. This is in response to the increasing popularity of anonymous web surfing. If you enable and apply these settings, your browsing history, search queries, cookies, download history, and passwords will not be saved in your browser.
The steps required to enable anonymous browsing in some of the most popular web browsers are as follows
- In Internet Explorer 8, open a new tab and choose “Browse with InPrivate” from the drop-down menu.
- By going to the Safari menu and selecting “Preferences,” you can enable a feature called “Private Browsing.”
- In Google Chrome, click the page icon located next to the URL window, and then choose “Open New Incognito Window.”
- In the following section of this article, we will look at ways to avoid the difficult issue of websites that require you to register in order to use them.
Anonymity is guaranteed with registration
Many websites require you to register before you can use their services, whether they are free or require a subscription. In most cases, you’ll need three things to get started: a working e-mail address, a username, and a password.
Many people simply do not want every website they visit to know who they are or how to contact them. This is in addition to the security risks of providing your e-mail address and other personally identifiable information to a random website.
Security experts strongly advise against using the same username and password to access all of the websites and services you use on the internet. Of course, there is a risk that one of these websites will inadvertently or maliciously disclose your personal information to identity thieves, who will then use your universal username and password to access your online bank account or other highly sensitive Web services. This could happen on purpose or by accident.
Another frustrating aspect of the internet is that many websites have no problem selling your personal information to third parties, who will then flood your inbox with spam. On some websites, you can choose not to receive e-mails from partners; however, it is not always clear which boxes to check or uncheck.
If you don’t want to give your real e-mail address to every website that requires registration, you can always use free services like Yahoo! Mail or Google Mail to create multiple e-mail accounts. If you don’t want to give your real e-mail address to every website that requires registration, this is an option. Because the majority of websites’ e-mail addresses are only used to confirm registration, it is perfectly acceptable to never check the e-mail account again.
Create a document in Excel or Word and save it on your computer if you intend to register with multiple websites and want to keep track of all of the different usernames, passwords, and e-mail addresses you’ve used. If someone were to gain access to that file, they would have more than enough information to impersonate you and commit identity theft.
Using a reputable internet-based service, such as ShopShield or Anonymizer, is a better option. These services will generate temporary e-mail addresses for you, complete with unique usernames and passwords that you can use with any website you choose. When a new email message arrives at one of these temporary accounts, it is scanned for malicious software and spam before being delivered to your primary email address. You can also delete any unnecessary accounts with the click of a button.